(Watchdog.org) Madison, WI — Relatively peaceful.
That’s how one political pundit described politics in Wisconsin in 2013.
Perhaps “relatively peaceful” seems a peculiar descriptor in a year replete with contentious court battles, a fierce fight over mining legislation and bitter back and forth on Obamacare in the Badger State.
But compared to the partisan charged recall and presidential campaigns of 2012, and 2011’s war over collective bargaining reforms, 2013 in Wisconsin politics felt like brunch at Martha Stewart’s — well, maybe not that bitter.
“It seemed in 2013 there was a break from contemptuous issues,” said Joe Heim,political science professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Don’t get used to it. Consider 2013 the calm before the storm of what promises to be a very volatile election year ahead, Heim said.
Here’s a look at the top stories of 2013:
Job 1 done
Peel back politics and policy and you are left with the one ultimate, essential job of the Legislature: Passing a state budget.
After months of heated debate, the Republican-led Legislature in June passed a $70 billion-plus, two-year budget that contained income tax cuts, restored funding for schools, a tuition freeze for students in the University of Wisconsin System and expanded enrollment for school choice.
Gov. Scott Walker pulled out his partial veto pen 57 times to trim frills. Walker said the “real story” had nothing to do with his vetoes but rather a “budget built for the hard-working taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin.”
The governor pointed to the budget’s $1 billion in tax relief for individuals and small business owners, including a $650 million income tax cut. The budget holds property tax increases to 1 percent and provides $322 million more for public schools, $100 million for workforce development programs and $6.4 billion in transportation spending.
“This budget is a sharp contrast from where we were two years ago,” the governor said. “Our structural reforms, coupled with tough, but prudent, decisions, have led to a great investment in the people of Wisconsin.”
Medicaid money debate
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, blasted the 2013-15 budget, saying it “includes what may be the worst decision made in our state in a generation — a health care plan that covers 85,000 fewer people and costs taxpayers an additional $120 million.”
One of the hallmarks of Walker’s budget is the rejection of $4 billion-plus in federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls. The federal government has offered to pay 90 percent of the state’s cost to expand Medicaid after fully funding the increase for the first three years.
Walker, though, insists the federal government won’t keep that promise and that in the long run the costs will devastate state finances. Even with rejecting the federal cash, Walker’s budget spends more than $750 million in new General Program Revenue for medical assistance programs and will cover all Wisconsinites living below the federal poverty level — about $11,500 for a single person.
More than 70,000 people are expected to be moved off of BadgerCare Plus. They will be able to purchase coverage through the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Critics say that could be more expensive than BadgerCare.
Following the disastrous launch of the federal healthcare.gov website, Walker rolled out a plan that delays the transition from the state Medicaid program to Obamcare until April 1.
BadgerCare coverage for some 83,000 childless adults earning above 100 percent of the poverty line also would be delayed by three months, a move that would save taxpayers $23 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Ending a two-year political tug of war, the Republican majority passed a bill that would streamline mining regulations, perhaps paving the way for a proposed $1.5-billion iron ore mine in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills.
Critics, including every Democrat in the Legislature, warned the legislation would dismantle the state’s environmental standards. Proponents countered that the bill merely would strip duplication and inefficiency in the permit process, and that the mine would create thousands of jobs.
“This mining legislation has been two years in the making. Since then, this is the 12th different hearing or public opportunity for input. I’m tallying 70 hours all told in public input on this bill,” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
The battle over Walker’s public employee collective bargaining reforms may have been waged en masse in Madison in 2011, but the legal challenges raged on in 2013.
Court decision after court decision found Act 10 constitutional, including the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
The state Supreme Court took up the dispute in November, and is expected to issue its decision in the coming months.
The court also agreed to hear arguments on separate challenges to the state’s voter ID law, passed by the Republican Legislature and signed by Walker in 2011. Opponents charge requiring a valid photo ID to vote is unconstitutional. Proponents say the law is needed to prevent incidents of election fraud.
More John Doe
Another year, another John Doe
In what the Wall Street Journal has billed Wisconsin’s political speech raid, dozens of conservative organizations have been targeted in a Democrat-driven, secret John Doe investigation, sources told Wisconsin Reporter in late October.
Launched nearly two years ago by the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, the probe is digging for alleged campaign violations during the state’s recall elections, according to sources.
The court-sanctioned dragnet has subpoenaed more than 100 conservative and free-market activists. Though gagged by provisions of the subpoenas, several sources havetold Wisconsin Reporter the manifold legal attack on nonprofit political organizations has included pre-dawn raids on homes and offices; confiscated equipment and files; and demands for phone, email and other records.
By the book
In what many saw as his resume for a 2016 presidential run, Walker in November released his book, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” a retrospective on the war that was the making of Wisconsin Act 10.
He details those early days of his first term, offering the insider’s view of a time one pundit called the most significant period in Wisconsin since the progressive movement of the early 20th century.
Walker will have to worry about 2014 before he thinks about 2016.
His road to re-election became clearer in October, when Madison school board member Mary Burke announced her candidacy for governor. The former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive threw her bicycle helmet into the political ring, giving Wisconsin Democrats their first candidate in a bid to take down the Republican they most love to hate.
Some Democrats have voiced criticism in the party establishment’s apparent anointing of the Madison millionaire, concerned the Democratic Party of Wisconsin wants to avoid any democratic messiness of a primary. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, apparently still was considering tossing her hat into the ring.
Heim, the political scientist, said Wisconsin politics is about to hit overdrive, with the Badger State, again, in the national political spotlight in 2014.
“I think it’s going to be a very interesting year,” Heim said.